Opinion - Mick Ronson
by David Thompson
THERE'S NOTHING LIKE DEATH to bring the cliches rolling out, and the bigger the name who died, the bigger the cliches he's buried in.
It's an awful waste. Obituaries, appreciations - call them what you will - offer perhaps the one occasion in a journalist's life when it's OK to get personal, when the mask of 'detached objectivity' can slip, and people won't call you out on it. Instead, the formula book is cracked open, and once again, 'rock has lost its best loved son,' and 'the world of pop is mourning,' and for every writer who does let a genuine tear stain his story, there's a dozen more Dabbing Eyes with Onions, and wondering if you spell 'snuffed out in his prime' with
one 'i'' or two.
The power of pop stars to touch
the hearts of their followers, and to keep touching long after the hits have stopped howling, is something only a true fan can understand.
I cried when Marc Bolan died, not because I knew the guy, or because I even liked him that much any more, but because I grew up with his music, and because his greatest hits were as much a part of my mental furniture as my own name. And 16 years later, on April 30, I would have cried again for Mick Ronson, for the exact same reasons and more.
The fact that I didn't was partly because I expected it (the guitarist was diagnosed with liver cancer last year, and wasn't even expected to survive the new year), and partly because by the time the news was confirmed, he'd already been gone for four days, and rumor had already prepared me. But it still hurt.
Musically, Ronson was the direct descendent of the flash guitar gods of the '60s; stylistically, the forebearer of the bright young things who emerged in the early 1980s. The Jezebels' James Stevenson speaks for an entire generation of British guitarists when he admits, 'without Mick Ronson, I wouldn't 'be playing today. Or at least, I wouldn't be playing like I do.'
Ronson's own idol, of course, was
Jeff Beck, but the one time the two
shared a stage, in 1973, Ronson admitted he didn't have the chance to be
overwhelmed. 'I was too busy look
ing at his flares. Even by our stan
dards, those trousers were excessive!'
'Our standards,' of course, were
those set by the Spiders from Mars,
David Bowie's backing band through
out his period of greatest vitality
(1970-73), when Ronson's guitar was
the defining factor which lent both
style and substance to Ziggy's funny
little songs about spaeemen.
By both dress and design, the
Spiders dragged pop music out of an
increasingly introspective trough: a
blaze of satin, tat and spandex which
not only dignified early '70s fashion,
it catapulted it into the 21st century -
assuming the 2lst century will be populated by alligators, Starmen and flamboyant bisexuals. Remember:
the moment, two-thirds of the way
through their show, when Bowie
dropped to his knees and fellated
Ronson's guitar remains the most
sexually liberated act in rock history.
A brief, and from Ronson's point of view half-hearted, solo career followed his split with Bowie in 1973.
Insisting he was never happy as a frontman, Ronson shot fame in the foot and joined Mott the Hoople instead. When that band splintered, one single later, he remained with Mott's leader, Ian Hunter, at the same time reinforcing his 'superstar sideman' tag by working with Sparks, David Cassidy, and best of all, Bob Dylan. Even in the tattered jeans and T-shirt which were de rigeur on 1975's Rolling Thunder
Revue, Ronson sparkled.
In more recent times, Ronson concentrated on production, culminat
ing last year with Morrissey's Your Arsenal. But he could never let his reputation overtake his personal taste, so while he could have been handling the giants, he helped the ob
scure ones instead. Seattle's Visible Targets (an EP in 1983), and Van
couver's Payola$ (two albums around the same time) are just two of the less-
than-commercially-earth-shattering bands who had Ronson at the helm; one could add Sandy Dillon, Kiss That, Ellen Foley and a pre-fame Daryl Hannah's Girls Next Door to that same list.
In 1992 Ronson completed the long overdue follow-up to the two solo albums he released in 1974-75, Slaughter on 10th Avenue and Play Don't Worry. But for most people, their last memory of Ronson was of his reunion with Bowie, first at the Freddie Mercury tribute show, then on the singer's Black Tie, White Noise.
They recorded Cream's 'I Feel Free,' a song which, 22 years ago, was a staple of the Spiders' live set. And though it is hardly the perfor
mance I would want to remember Ronson by (he's barely audible, for a start), the actual taping must have been a sight to behold - two old rockers on the wrong side of 45, re
membering the days when they were still young together.
That same sensation shot through a lot of minds on April 30, and re
playing the old records, there it was again - a sense of innocence recaptured, of exhuberance reborn ... and then snatched away by some deaf idiot pop hack who didn't even know who Ronson was before someone phoned up and asked why the local paper hadn't mentioned him. Yeah, it was always there, but somehow, in the bustle of everyday life, it seemed too irrelevant to take very seriously.
Right now, the absolute opposite is true. Right now, the world of pop really is mourning. We've lost a great musician, but we've also lost a little piece of our own past, and Ziggy will never play guitar the same again.
In the words of Ian Hunter,
'thanks for a great trip.'